EXCLUSIVE: Scrap merchants say they are coming under increasing, unfair and damaging pressure from the police as the metal theft crisis continues.
Several scrap dealers have told MRW that legitimate traders are being treated in a heavy handed manner by police and other agencies desperate to satisfy the political and public outcry over the theft.
The government has made fighting metal crime a priority, with home secretary Theresa May promising changes to the law and prime minister David Cameron saying before Christmas he was “determined to put a stop to this really appalling crime”.
One merchant based in southern England, who did not want to be named, told MRW he was arrested when police found some scrap phone wire in his yard that he had taken for free from a major building contractor.
The merchant claimed he was held for five hours by police, fingerprinted and DNA swabbed, despite the contractor who supplied the wire confirming his story.
Police raided his yard with a TV crew in tow, he said. “I was totally humiliated in the area. I make a joke about it, but deep down I’m proper angry about it. I try to help out the police. But this makes me not want to bother.”
He said was released without charge and received a letter two weeks later to say no further action would be taken.
“It was the most humiliating thing that has ever happened to me,” the dealer said. “Some of the officers told me they had to make the arrest to keep their numbers up.”
He added that the police were looking for problems with customers’ vehicles, and the heavy presence was driving business away.
“I think they’re under pressure from above,” he said. “They ought to concentrate on the yards that do it. Not the legitimate yards.”
Mark Schofield, director of scrap merchant J B Schofield in Huddersfield, said: “It’s absolutely outrageous what the police are doing in the name of the government. And it’s all for effect. It’s all for the media.
“When they came to see me, they brought the newspaper and a local councillor. The day afterwards, there was a front page story telling the world they’d taken my books away.
“The police were very heavy handed. They were telling me I couldn’t sell certain items until they came back to me. And then never came back. I honestly didn’t sleep that night.
“A couple of days later the police were parked up on the road checking insurance documents for all our customers.”
Another merchant, this time in the north east of England, said his uncle’s yard was raided last week by police who seized money and material but didn’t arrest the dealer.
The merchant said there was growing concern in the region after a series of raids. He said dealers faced losing money under proceeds of crime laws if they could not prove where material came from.
He said he was arrested several years ago following a police raid on his home and yard. After 18 months on bail, the merchant says he was informed that there would be no further action. But thousands of pounds were seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
“The CID officer told me if I’d challenged the proceeds of crime action, he’d ‘dig up everything you’ve done in the past 10 years and get something on you’. That’s what we’ve got to put up with. Every time I see a police car go past, I’m on edge. Everyone’s worried. It doesn’t matter how clean you are, if they want to, they’ll find something on you. You can’t always be sure the material you buy in wasn’t stolen.”
Another trader alleged that officers that visited him told him the visits and raids were the result of political pressure on the police.
The merchant said: “These policemen don’t know what they’re looking for. If they’re looking for stolen metal, they very rarely know what form it’s in. They haven’t got a name or registration number. They know they’re wasting their time.”
A West Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “Metal thefts are a very serious crime and carry a high profile at the moment due to the expense, inconvenience and safety risk they can cause.
“Neighbourhood Policing Teams across West Yorkshire regularly visit scrap dealers as part of their work to tackle metal theft. However, that is not to suggest that we believe the yards being visited are guilty of any crimes.
“We occasionally invite the media on these visits, so that we can show the public, through the local press, some of the work that is done to combat metal theft, but also to show how the vast majority of merchants are reputable and fully commited to working with us on this issue.
“Last year, we carried out a number of successful operations to tackle both thieves and unscrupulous traders in the region. The Courts were and are fully supportive of this work and as a result we have seen people recieving terms of imprisonment of two and four years. So the work we do brings results and we are keen for this to continue.”
A spokesman for British Transport Police, which leads nationally on metal theft, said: “Scrap yard checks are just one element of the work undertaken to target metal theft.
“Checks are conducted by both British Transport Police and Home Office colleagues, in partnership with other agencies, to ensure all dealers are complying with legislation.
“We actively target unlicensed dealers and continue to work with the Environment Agency and local authorities to tackle those who operate outside of the licensing structure.
“Through our connection with the Association of Chief Police Officers Metal Theft Working Group, we have built strong links with the British Metals Recycling Association and have worked with them to develop a code of conduct and to seek legislative amendments which address the issue of metal theft while taking into consideration the business interests of metal recyclers.”
“We further understand that scrap metal recyclers are often victims of metal-related crime themselves, whether it be thefts from yards or through unwittingly taking in stolen goods which are paid for in good faith and later seized by police.
“Metal theft is a blight on society and impacts on all industries – including the recycling trade – but only by working together will we truly be able to achieve desirable reductions.”